#14 Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
     (G. T. Basden, 1938)

… [the] “Ichu-aja”… offering consists of a selection of the following: food, strips of cloth, a gin bottle, a lizard, a chicken or a kid, and other things up to a bull or, in the past, a human being, according to the instructions of the “dibia”, and as the circumstances demand. A man may be his own sacrificing priest on occasions. When, however, the “dibia” so directs, the “di-okpala” alone can act.

The main objects of “Ichu-aja” are:

(a) to remove fear of the living and the dead;

(b) to secure present and future well-being;

(c) to appease malevolent spirits.

The immediate results are hope, peace of mind and expectations of blessings to come.

Note may be made of other occasions when “Ichu-aja” is observed. The most common occur when a member of the community dies from a noxious complaint which rouses feelings of repulsion, such as leprosy or smallpox; in the case of self-inflicted death, or when a man dies during the time of mourning for his wife, or a woman for her husband. The bodies of such are not buried in the ordinary manner: they are carried out and deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush). For this sacrifice, not much preparation is required. It is a small affair, the offering demands no more space than a wooden platter, or a makeshift one, cut from a banana (tree) stem, or a fragment of dried gourd (calabash), or merely a plaited palm-leaf dish. The offering is carefully laid at the junction where three or more paths intersect at a spot outside the confines of the village and, usually, adjacent to a path leading to a burial ground. The place selected is known a “Abu-ito” and is near the spot where the disgruntled spirit is supposed to have dwelling.

The person carrying the offering is enjoined to maintain strict silence while passing along the road; not even a salutation is permissible. It is hardly necessary to exercise caution, because an oncoming traveler is usually quick to notice the presence of the platter and incontinently gives way to the bearer. He will do this from fear rather than from feelings of respect, hence there is little likelihood of the bearer being accosted by the other person. Some guidance in direction comes from the fact that the spirit is alleged to be residing at an indicated spot. The presentation of the sacrifice is deemed sufficient to mollifty his feelings and to induce him to cease from troubling the living.

…It is advisable to recall attention to the fact that the Ibo sacrifices for two main reasons. First, because of the pinch of adversity in some form or another. In common with other folk, the sense of sin and evil at work in the world drives a man to seek help from an outside power whom he believes to be his guardian spirit. The insufficiency of man, and his consequent inability to walk uprightly, is recognized by the Ibo. This is really why sacrifices are offered. The terms “Igo-Maw” (“to propitiate (feast) the spirits”) have deep significance for the Ibo. This underlying meaning must always be present in the mind of the student if he is to approach the study of Ibo sacrifice and ceremonial sympathetically.

We note that “Ichu-aja” is offered to malevolent spirits only; there is no form of direct sacrifice to the Supreme Being…

…Sacrifice, in consequence of pollution, is called “Ikpu-alu” = “to drive out abomination”; it may be on behalf of an individual or for the township. The following are some instances for which “Ikpu-alu” is necessary for purification purposes:

  1. A man having carnal knowledge of his mother, sister, or another of his father’s wives.
  2. A man committing adultery with his brother’s wife, or the wife of a member with whom there is blood relationship.
  3. Major misdeeds against Native Law and Custom.
  4. A man committing suicide by hanging.
  5. A man fighting with a “maw”. [a man impersonating a re-embodied spirit] (Vide p. 375.)
  6. A man having sexual intercourse with an animal.
  7. The birth of twins.
  8. A child cutting its upper before its lower teeth.
  9. Abnormal presentation in delivery.

These are examples; there are other offences which demand purification ceremonies; a complete list would absorb considerable space.

…When feast to the “Ilo-Maw” is observed, the procedure is as follows. Before describing it, attention must be called to the fact that, for the most part, sickness is not attributed to natural causes. Instead, it is believed that ill health, for which no visible reason can be assigned, is the result of witchcraft, or that it springs from the activities of spirits who have, in some unknown way, been offended and who display their wrath by inflicting sickness. One of the leading members of the family approaches a “dibia” and relates his story. The “dibia” inquires into the circumstances, the kind of sickness, how and when it began, and so forth. He thus obtains all the information available and derives some foundation upon which to base his diagnosis. He is then in a position to proceed with his own professional part in the business. He does this by divination. The upshot is that, as a general rule, blame is attached to some person, very frequently a woman. Clandestine infidelity is assumed to be a cause of sickness, including rheumatism and other ailments which have no connection with sexual intercourse. Too often, the allegation cannot be denied and, though the woman cannot understand “how” it has come about, yet, being unable to refute the charge, it is taken for granted that her sin is the cause of the sickness. Her one and only chance to prove herself innocent of deliberate evil intention was to pass successfully through a trial by ordeal. This consisted of swallowing the contents of the poison cup. (Orachi = sasswood.) A woman who has unfornate enough to be condemned to this form of trial died, forthwith, unless there was found a way of escape. Not often, however, was a woman rich enough to negotiate successfully with the administrator of the cup. He was most probably quite amenable to a monetary compromise. If made sufficiently attractive he might be persuaded to omit the poison altogether or, failing that, add a potent emetic which would cause the drinker to vomit before the poison could take effect…

The following description of death and burial customs pertains rather to the Awka District; they are not universal in the Ibo country. Each neighborhood has its own peculiar adaptations…

…The cause of death…plays an important part in the question of burial. The bodies of those who die from noxious diseases are disposed of hurriedly. Lepers, and those who die from smallpox, or some cause which cannot be accounted for satisfactorily, are quickly removed. Lepers are wound in their sleeping-mats and, like those who die of smallpox, are not placed in a grave; they are deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush) very often, indeed, before they are dead.

It is abomination for a dropsical person to die in the house. Death by dropsy is the due result of evil-doing, such as administering poison; the culprit has escaped human detection, but has not escaped punishment at the hands of the gods. People dying as the result of accident; women dying in childbirth; lunatics, suicides and those who have been murdered, drowned or burned are considered as having come to their untimely ends by “Onwu Ekwensu”, that is, by the instrumentality of the Devil. None of these may be rubbed with “ufie”, and they must be disposed of without delay. Should, by chance, any rubbing be done for one of these, it is done with “edo”, a brilliant yellow stain obtained from wood prepared in the same manner as camwood dye. They must be buried outside the confines of the town as befits those whose death is of the Devil. In the case of a suicide, it is essential, too, that the culpit’s house be ceremonially purified.

The corpse of a man or woman who dies during the period of mourning for wife or husband is treated similarly. The privilege of “Second Burial” is denied to all who die “Onwu Ekwensu”, nor is a “Chi” or “Okpensi” set up for them or the slave; they are for ever blotted out of the book of remembrance.

[#14] Igbo:  “Sacrifices, Death, and Burial,” from G. T. Basden, Niger Ibos.  New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc, 1938, 1966, pp. 58-60, 63-64,  271, 276,  416.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, African Traditional Sub-Saharan Cultures

Leave a Reply